Contrary to popular belief, most elders have regular contact with family • Jennifer Smith, marriage & family therapist
The family in later life is the final stage of the family life cycle. Pessimistic views of the family in this stage of life prevail. “Myths hold that most elders either have no families, or, at best, have infrequent, obligatory, and conflictual contact; that adult children don’t care about their aged parents and abandon them or dump them in institutions; and that families in later life are too set in their ways to change long-standing interaction patterns. Through such misconceptions the family in later life, like the older individual, has been stereotyped and dismissed.” –McGoldrick
Studies indicate just the opposite. Family relationships continue to be important throughout later life for most adults in our society. Most elders live with spouses or family members. Most have regular contact of some type with their family. Only three percent never see a child. Most elders prefer to maintain separate households from their children, but report frequent contact, significant emotional ties, and mutual support bonds between themselves and their kids. There is a direct connection between longevity and social contact of elders with their friends and family.
The family as a system, along with it’s elder members, faces major changes during this period. Changes with retirement, widowhood, grandparenthood, and illness require family support, adjustment to loss, reorientation, and reorganization. “Past and current family relationships play a critical role in the resolution of the major psychosocial task of later life, the achievement of a sense of integrity versus despair regarding the acceptance of one’s own life and death (Erikson, 1959). While loss and readjustment are a part of this stage, so are transformation and growth.
We live in a society that fights aging. Large amounts of money are spent on anti-aging products. Many even alter their faces and bodies in order to look “younger.” In all of this, the value of aging seems to be lost. The way in which we age reflects the way in which we have worked towards a healthy self-definition in previous stages. All stages of the family life cycle build on each other. Being present in meaningful ways in each stage of our lives can lead us to truly living “golden years” in later life.
While there are real challenges in aging, I believe that aging is a state of mind. We can choose to act “old” even when we are not. Or we can choose to act “young” even if our age is above the speed limit on the interstate. We all need to feel connected and valued no matter what our stage in life. Respecting and valuing our elders and listening to the wisdom they can offer from their experience can enrich all other life stages.
A life well-lived in loving and serving others no matter what stage enhances and supports the family system. Systems are only as healthy as their individual members. Systems become stronger when each stage is valued for what it is and what it brings. Knowing the tasks and challenges of each stage allows smooth transitions between stages.
Do you have a question about building healthy relationships? Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Printed in the September 20, 2012 edition